The Retrievers of Windsor: A Maynard Trigg Story

Many of you reading this have followed Maynard's story in The Creature Beneath The Veil. But if you have not, you can still enjoy this story.

You need only keep two things in mind if you are a newcomer. First, people live on great floating cities called skyports, and traverse the skies in ferries, galleons and a great number of vessels. There are pirates, thieves, politicians and even more dangers in this world.

Second, Maynard Trigg is the son of a councillor on a distant skyport, and has fled a creature intent on his blood aboard The Harmony where he has found a fast ally in Abbey, a talented, violent ferry guard.

This story takes place between Book One and Book Two. It recounts one of Abbey's exploits as a Retriever, a cross between a bounty hunter and hired thug, and introduces us to the world as it was, before the white law closed in.

Thank you to Dom and Sam for their input in shaping this story (and of course, Aron, my editor).

Thank you dear reader, I hope you enjoy this return to Maynard's world before book two arrives.

- D.C. McNeill, 12 October 2020



The Retrivers of Windsor: A Maynard Trigg Story

The morning before Maynard had agreed to meet with Edgar Von Bloom aboard The Harmony, he walked into the Bowse, with Abbey by his side. The floor stretched out ahead of them. Chairs, tables, drinks. A bar lined one wall, and the back wall was glass. An observation deck for the engine, Maynard decided. Maynard followed Abbey to the glass wall.

            ‘Got this,’ Abbey said. She showed him a fold of paper with a message scrawled inside: The goods live in a usual way, spot and all, see. You could need the thorn– Wickham.

            ‘A coded message?’ Maynard said.

            ‘Skip code,’ Abbey said. ‘Just read every second word.’

            Maynard squinted at the paper, hard.

            ‘Goods… in… usual… spot… all… you… need…thorn?’

            Abbey chuckled.

            ‘Thorn is how Wickham ends his ciphers to me—it’s how I know it’s really him. No one else knows that, except me and Wickham.’

            ‘And now me.’

            ‘And now you, mudfoot.’

            ‘The usual spot is where, exactly?’

            ‘Wickham and I used to run a smuggling ring on Quick-Greep ferries. There’s a place in the engine room we used to use for dead drops—behind the regulators, a sort of… induction area, I suppose. We used them for dead drops, and on the occasion we got caught, as a place to hide.’

            ‘You’re certain?’

            Abbey shrugged. ‘Only one way to find out. It’s through there, in the engine room.’

       Beyond the glass, a series of four cylindrical boilers stretched from the floor to the ceiling. Piping, dials and tubes wove around the boilers, vanishing into numerous enclaves and pockets. Dozens of engineers in coveralls tended the boilers speaking to one another in a constant buzz of information.

       ‘It’s amazing,’ Maynard said.

       ‘That’s not the half of it. Come on.’

       Abbey crossed the observation deck to a door labelled: NO ENTRANCE, ENGINEERS EXCEPTED.

       Abbey glanced around. Satisfied, she ushered Maynard through onto a catwalk.

       The catwalk reached over the boilers into the machinery beyond.

       ‘See there?’ Abbey said. She pointed to a great valve affixed to the wall. ‘That’s the regulator. It takes in Dust once every eight hours. The Dust sweeps through the electrodes in the boiler, cleaning any building up.’

       ‘Isn’t that dangerous?’

       ‘Extremely. We’re a few minutes away from the next cycle, we need to be on the other side of the boilers before they open the valve.’

       Abbey crouched below the metal shields of the catwalk, and, peeking over the top, waited until none of the engineers were looking, and dashed to the next shield. Maynard followed, fast and quiet as he could.

       They arrived at the far side of the boilers without incident.

       Abbey placed her index finger to her lips, then pointed directly over the shield.

       Maynard craned his neck over the catwalk, holding his breath.

       A platform with a grated floor nestled among the twist of pipes and machines.

       ‘We’re going to jump,’ Abbey said. ‘But we have to time it right. Once the engineers leave the floor, we’ll have about two minutes to get down there.’

       ‘What about the Dust? Won’t we be wiped out?’

       ‘We’ll be fine. The platform’s used during engine construction to test integrity but once the ship’s in the sky there’s no reason to have an engineer down there. Just putting them at risk.’

       ‘Oh,’ Maynard said. ‘But we’ll be at risk.’

       ‘Well.’ Abbey hesitated. ‘A little.’

 

A few minutes later, a klaxon sounded. The engineers left the room, one by one, through maintenance corridors.

       ‘Ready?’ Abbey said. ‘When you land try and roll.’

The last engineer left, and Abbey put her boot on the rail of the catwalk. Maynard did the same. Together they clambered over the railing.

Something deep in the boilers groaned. Then metal scraped on metal. The huge arms of the valve retracted into the wall, one agonising scrape at a time.

       ‘Now,’ Abbey hissed.

       Maynard took Abbey’s hand. They stepped forward into the air.

       The platform rushed to meet them. Maynard came down on his ankle. He turned. Fell, hard. His elbow cracked against the floor. The floor grating cut his cheek.

       Maynard rolled over.

       ‘Ow,’ he said

       Abbey had landed, rolled, and hunched by Maynard. She eased him to his feet.

       ‘Help me with this,’ Abbey said.

       She reached down and took up a handle.

       ‘Grab the other one.’

       Maynard did so, taking up the handle next to Abbey.

       ‘Lift,’ she said.

       Maynard pulled.

       ‘Quick,’ Abby said.

       Behind them, the arms of the valve thumped into place. Gears turned. The valve began to inch open. Hot wind whipped through the engine room. The klaxon sounded three harsh shrieks.

       ‘Little more!’ Abbey said.

       Maynard tensed, and heaved.

       The wind grew hotter and hotter. A sound like tearing metal.

       Something gave, and suddenly they were pulling up a shield from the floor. Halfway up, and a mechanism kicked in. The shield raised automatically. Then behind them, another shield. And another. And the fourth, slowly raising.

       The valve creaked open.

       The wind lashed forward. Maynard staggered, caught Abbey’s arm to steady himself. The sound of ripping and tearing grew louder, twisting into a howl. The shields thumped into place, and glass slid into place over the top, sealing in the platform, muting the rage outside.

       ‘That was close,’ Abbey said.

       ‘What would’ve happened if we were too slow?’ Maynard said.

       Abbey pointed up.

       Overhead, spirals of Dust rushed by, faster than Maynard could see. Maynard had once seen an aeronaut’s Skimmer succumb to Dust from his father’s study: the man had been stripped of his flesh, and vanished beneath the tumbling storm.

       ‘I don’t see any dead drop,’ he said finally.

       ‘Move over.’

       Maynard shuffled to the side.

       ‘Careful. If you touch the shields you’ll lose your hand. They’ll be very hot.’

       Abbey reached down, and slid a hatch aside, and pulled up a long cloth bag. She opened the bag, and took out a bundle of faded cloth. She unrolled the cloth to reveal a slender sabre in a black scabbard.

       ‘He came through,’ Abbey said.

       She took up the sword and slid it back into the bag. She unfurled the cloth and held it up. Dozens of buckles hung from various parts of the cloth. Maynard squinted at it.

       ‘My cloak,’ Abbey said. ‘A gift from a lifetime ago.’

       She rummaged through the bag, and took out pistols, daggers, ropes, and boxes of shells.

       ‘Everything’s here,’ she said.

       ‘Von Bloom will be pleased,’ Maynard said.

       ‘It’ll be another few hours for this cycle,’ Abbey said. She stretched out and linked her hands behind her head. ‘Did I tell you how I got my cloak?’

       Maynard shook his head.

‘I told you I was a bruiser—I engaged in wetwork mostly. Intimidation, collection, bounty hunting. Anything that turned up coin from the right people for putting the hurt on people.’

       ‘Did you enjoy it?’ Maynard said.

       Abbey hesitated. ‘I was different, then.’

       ‘So yes.’

       ‘Sometimes. Do you know Almira The Kettle?’

       ‘The pirate? Sure.’ In between council meetings, Parker had told Maynard stories from the docks, about the world beyond Carthage. Maynard always made him tell the pirate stories, over and over, but his favourites of all: Miller The Tower, Walks-In-Dust, and Almira the Kettle.

       ‘Almira was my first pirate,’ Abbey said.

       ‘I don’t understand.’

       ‘Have you heard any stories about Almira lately?’

       Maynard reflected. ‘No, not really. Not since I was little.’

       Abbey tilted her head.

       ‘Really?’ Maynard said. ‘You caught Almira?’

       ‘Not caught, no.’

 

***

 

A long time ago I fell in with the Retrievers—an organisation that solved problems when the white law proved too restrictive. We collected bounties. For a fee, of course. Not long after I arrived in Haven, well before I started on a crew. Windsor, the boss, summoned me to his office. The white law had settled in Haven only a few months before, so the whole city was shifting under foot. Pistols and powder moved through the backstreets freely, and it felt like everyone bad was enjoying their last gasp before the white coats closed in.

       Windsor had his office in the top of a boardhouse. Hiding in plain sight, he called it. He’d decorated himself with gaudy baubles and trinkets, and insisted on high-collared cloaks. He wasn’t bald by then, but his hair thinned, and his beard failed to disguise the weight he would continue to put on as the years went.

       ‘I thought it was time you joined us… officially.’

       Windsor took out a roll of yellow cloth from behind his desk and handed it to me. I put it on—my Retriever cloak. Buckled, and lined with resistant fabrics. On the breast, a silver W inset on a bronze seal: the mark of the Retrievers.

       ‘You’re one of us now.’

       ‘To do what?’ I said.

       ‘A silk trader, Edwin, was killed in Versatility. The assailant wore our colours, a Retriever seal was found at the scene. It was framed to be one of ours.’

       ‘Someone’s pretending to be a Retriever. What do we care?’

       ‘The job was messy. Inelegant. But most importantly, unsanctioned—no writ permission, no chit. Someone just hoping we’ll take the blame for their dirty work.’

       ‘You trust the source?’

       Windsor shrugged. ‘Osgood seems to think so. You don’t have to like it, but go to the trader, find out who did this, and stop them from doing it again. I don’t take kindly to someone threatening our reputation. You’re taking one of your offsiders, Emery Brooks.’

       ‘That’s not a good idea,’ I said. ‘We don’t… get along.’

       ‘Good. You’re new but you have my confidence. You’re to keep Brooks from doing anything too eager.’

Emery Brooks was, in a word, difficult. I’d always preferred working with the loud-mouthed Durwood, or the calculated Bailey. Brooks proved a challenge. Our last job together had been a painful debt collection, and rather than walking away with the money, we’d been given a beating by a cult of protein farmers obsessed with an old-world wreck.

‘I’ll bring our man back alive,’ I promised, despite my concern.

       ‘Don’t care if he’s breathing or not,’ said Windsor. ‘But none of this business like on Harfwere—if you don’t have a choice then I expect you keep it quiet. Clean.’

       ‘Tell that to Brooks.’

       ‘Enough. Just remember: quietly. This is wetwork not a bruising.’

 

I knew the shop the moment I laid eyes on the display window. It was boarded up. The door swayed from a loose hinge. We entered the shop, Brooks doing her best to feign interest. The shop was quaint enough. Low tables, rolls of fabric mounted on the walls. Bunting strung between the rafters. Wooden dummies tangled in coats, and belts and scarves tumbled over each other. Needles and thread swept into the corner. A square of floorboard sectioned off with rope. A dark stain on the floor by a broken lantern.

       The shop keeper cowered behind the counter.

       ‘Who are you?’ he said. ‘Yellow cloaks? You’re not more of those spooks are you. Not enough to take my Edwin? Well you won’t have me!’

       ‘We’re not here to hurt you, we’re here for Edwin’s killer,’ I said.

       The shop keeper reached down and brought up a scattergun.

       Brooks and I had our pistols on him before he could raise it above his hip.

       ‘Steady,’ I warned.

       He twitched. ‘You’re back for me, aren’t you!’

       ‘We’re here to help.’

       ‘I’ll blow yer both away.’

       Brooks cocked her pistol.

‘Brooks,’ I whispered.

       ‘You aren’t fast enough,’ she said. ‘I’ll have you on the ground before you blink.’

       ‘Brooks.’ I said. ‘Take a breath.’

       I eased my arm down, holstered my gun.

       Brooks licked her lips. Lowered her pistol.

       The shop keeper tensed, sighed, sagged. Brooks strode forward and snatched the weapon. She pivoted, banged the stock of the weapon on the counter. The shop keeper flinched.

       ‘Thugs,’ the shop keeper wailed.

       ‘We’re not here to hurt you,’ I insisted.

       ‘But we will if you do anything that stupid again,’ Brooks muttered.

       ‘W-w-what did she say?’

       ‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘We’re here for Edwin’s killer, nothing else.’

       ‘You’re white law?’

       I hesitated. Impersonating agents of the Veil carried a punishment of Tipping before parliament’s reform, and we were already up for unwelcome entry and assault if the shop keep knew his rights.

       ‘Yes, white law,’ said Brooks. ‘Do you have papers for this scattergun?’

       ‘Well… no,’ said the shop keeper.

       ‘Shells?’ Brooks said.

       The shop keeper placed a small wooden box on the countertop. Brooks emptied the shells into a cloth bag on her belt and slung the scattergun over her shoulder.

       ‘Now, tell us about Edward.’

       ‘Edwin,’ I corrected.

       ‘It was horrible,’ said the shop keep. He sniffled, sobbed, and broke down. ‘You can stop him. Promise me you can stop him. My Edwin deserves justice.’

       I could tell he wasn’t born wealthy. His clothes had silk trim, but they were cut from canvas: practical. His shoes leather-fitted rather than wooden or cloth like the other merchants in the district. But the most telling detail remained his fingernails. Dirt under the nails, yellow at their tip, uneven cuticles, small white circles, and a tremor in his grip: likely from a childhood in the cold, coupled with poor nutrition shredding his nerves one at a time.

‘Abbey,’ Brooks said. I excused myself and joined her away from the shopkeeper.

       ‘The shells are old,’ she explained. ‘But the gun’s new, no more than a day or two. Weapon has no serial number or maker’s mark.’

       The gun’s barrel still held its shine, and dark varnish on the stock suggested it had been assembled recently. But the trigger sat too far forward for the shopkeeper’s small frame. The maker’s mark had been sanded off, leaving a smooth spot on the underside of the stock. And the shell casings had chipped edges, scratches.

       ‘He’s never held a gun in his life,’ I agreed.

       ‘He was shaken, must have got this from a street vendor.’

       ‘So much he bought a gun enough to take down a Skimmer and then some.’

       ‘I’d say its suspicious, but I doubt he knows what he bought,’ Brooks said.

            We turned back to the shopkeeper. He had settled and leant bodily on the counter.

‘Take a breath,’ I said. ‘Then tell me exactly what happened.’

 

It was horrible, the shop keeper explained. The day of the break-in, the shop keeper—Clement—and his husband Edwin had been preparing an order of gowns for a council meeting that evening. Clement made the garments, but Edwin sold them: his charm and sophistication transformed their little shop into an institution, apparently. They serviced all the council members and upper crust of Versatility.

       So, with the store closed for the evening, Edwin and Clement wrapped gowns in soft papers, and laid them inside decorative cases. A knock on the front door. Any other folk would have left it, but not Edwin. Edwin, ever the host, opened the door to politely explain the shop had closed for the night. The visitor carried a thin, rusted cudgel or mace, concealed in a frayed yellow cloak. The visitor knocked Edwin across the skull, hard, and dragged him inside. He threw the man down in front of his husband and demanded the gowns. Not a single gold or silver coin. Just the gowns.

       Clement described the visitor as raggedy— thin, wretchedly so. Beneath his yellow cloak, stains discoloured his jacket, a patchwork of aprons and discarded rags stitched into a jerkin. A creature from a storybook, he said, one of the patchwork men. He had an accomplice too, a lookout man looming in the doorway. But Clement couldn’t tell me much of the accomplice, except they were shrouded in a similar yellow cloak with the hood drawn.

       The visitor beat Edwin with the blunt weapon, demanding The Tokens. The Tokens, again and again. The visitor relented when Edwin could no longer protest.

 

Clement sat in silence as he finished his story. When Clement’s hands stopped trembling, I breached the silence.

‘Tokens?’ I asked Clement.

       Clement nodded. `

       ‘We were holding them for… an associate.’

       ‘I’m going to need more than that,’ I said.

       Clement fidgeted, squirmed, then relented.

‘They were to be smuggled in with the gowns.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Nor do I. Edwin handled the sales, like I said,’ Clement insisted.

‘Did he do under the table deals often?’ Brooks asked. I could feel her agitation.

‘I’m not sure.’

‘Alright,’ I said.

       I placed parchment and a pen in front of him.

       ‘Could you draw one for me?’

       He took up the pen. He sketched an uneven circle made of twine or rope or string, with a coin laid in the centre.

       ‘That’s a pirate coin,’ I said.

       ‘Token of passage,’ Brooks said.

       ‘How do you know that?’ I asked. But as Brooks considered her response. Clement cried. He did not stop crying even as we left.

 

Our next stop hid, camouflaged in the galleon yards—concealed among dozens of half-built hulls, deconstructed engine chambers and bundles of floating skywood. The muddy pathway narrowed and deepened into a mire before the tavern’s steps. You could smell stale ales and sweat well before you laid eyes on the front door.

       The tavern had an improvised quality: five or six shanties had been fused together under a rotted skywood canvas. A metal trellis woven with a hundred flags wrapped around the exterior: each flag belonged to a captain of a free ship. They would visit and provide their respects to the pirate king. Or so the rumours went.

       We’d visited a local tailor and gunsmith to dress the part: flight cloaks, waistcoasts, under-the-counter pistolla and boarding-guns. When we arrived the doormen let us in without a question. I’m yet to see a tavern of its equal. Barrels of ale in the mud. Kegs of beer tapped right to the tables. Pistol duels between friend and foe alike in the corridors. Board upon board of illegal jobs requiring warm bodies, and dozens of captains claiming they knew the way to a free world. Not just a pirate tavern, but the gateway into the world beyond: gambling, racketeering, professional harming. The tavern might as well have been poisoned. It wasn’t the sort of place with a sign out the front or a name.

       We bought ale and waited until we spied the proprietor. While dozens of staff bustled here or there, none seemed to be leading. Until Brooks spotted an older woman in an apron. She dispensed terse, quiet orders as she moved. Her grey hair clung to her scalp in a harsh plait. A patch concealed one of her eyes.

       We cornered her as she picked a broken bottle from the mud.

       ‘Do you own this tavern?’ I said.

       ‘Aye, and the bunkhouses. They call me Kelly, thought t’ent my name.’

       ‘We’re looking for someone. Probably came in wearing a yellow cloak,’ I said.

       ‘Factional?’ said Kelly.

       ‘Not officially. Maybe had on an apron underneath? Could’ve been with someone else in a yellow cloak?’ I said.

       ‘Maybe.’

       I palmed her three coppers.

       Kelly snapped her fingers. ‘Now I remember. Aye, the lowlife didn’t even square up before he left. Left the room a right mess too. You his captain? Caretaker? Don’t suppose you’re here to settle his account?’

       ‘He’s not with us,’ Brooks said.

       I handed Kelly a silver piece. She placed it between her teeth and clicked her tongue.

       ‘It’ll do,’ she said.

       ‘What name did they use?’ I asked.

       ‘Aye, hold yerself a moment.’

       Kelly produced a ledger with lots of red ink, and after some quiet deliberation, handed me a slip of paper with a room number, cost and tally of nights stayed.

       ‘Name on the receipt’s The Cook. Seeing as you settled up the account, this is yours,’ said Kelly. She gave me the receipt.

       ‘They didn’t give a name?’ Brooks said.

       ‘We ain’t in the business of asking too many questions. Pirate’s code and all.’

       ‘We’re not pirates,’ Brooks said. She stepped toward Kelly.

       ‘See that man by the door, in the broad hat?’ Kelly said. ‘And the two bruisers at the bar? And the short lady in the brown coat? They work for me. If you lay a hand on me they’ll have you on the street in pieces before you know it.’

       ‘Not before I do something to you that can’t be undone,’ Brooks said.

       ‘Enough,’ I said, and moved between them. ‘Can we see the room? I paid you well more than our man owed.’

       Kelly deliberately did not look at Brooks, and gave me a brass key.

       ‘You paid more than enough, it’s yours tonight too. But keep your friend on a leash.’

 

The Cook’s room had been turned inside out. I could tell immediately there had been a fight. The smell of sour beer, blood and gunpowder. A dent in the wall, scuff marks on the floorboards. Drops of blood on the bunk. I walked the room, and Brooks waited outside. When I was done, she stepped in.

       ‘Let’s have it,’ she said.

       I explained it, as I understood it. The Cook had been lying in his bunk, drinking. The pillow still held the scent of whiskey. An intruder rushed in and tried to grab him, sending the pillow down the side of the mattress. He fought back. The Cook scored a decent hit, enough to draw blood. The blood landed on the sheets. The Cook reached for a pistol, but intruder slapped it away, scoring the wall with the distinct curve of its hammer mechanism. The intruder lunged for the weapon while The Cook fled.

       ‘The partner?’ Brooks said.

       ‘If I had to guess. Some kind of feud after they got their tokens. They drew a gun, the scuffle got serious.’

       Brooks crouched near the wall where the pistol had fallen. She imitated picking it up.

       ‘Not a gun,’ she said. ‘Something heavier. So a weapon gets pulled, knocked… somewhere, our man runs. What does the attacker do next now that our man’s gone?’

       ‘Searches The Cook’s trunk.’ I pointed to the trunk which now lay on its side. Stained shirts and blackened aprons spilled out, along with empty shell casings. Three wooden cases stuffed with expensive gowns, but not a single pirate token. Among the detritus: a ladle. Reinforced with bronze, the bowl was inlaid with nails, which the handle sported a thick wooden grip.

       ‘Something heavier,’ I agreed.

       Brooks hefted the ladle, gripping it from the handle.

       ‘The edge is sharpened,’ she said. ‘This is a weapon.’

       ‘Inventive.’

       Brooks studied it for a time, turning it over.

       ‘The maker’s mark is worn but see here.’ Brooks showed me a series of alien engravings on the dull side of the stem. ‘Definitely a Vigorn piece. He hasn’t been forging out of Versatility for a while, and this is well used. The edge’s been sharpened on a cheap whetstone, repeatedly.’ The sharp stem caught the light. Rather than a straight edge like a knife, it was uneven in places. ‘This is a well-loved, and well-used weapon. And here, an Allumore Steel joint in the handle. No one’s had fresh ingot for a few years, this is someone’s prized tool. No way our man leaves it behind.’

       ‘So we know our man—this Cook—will want this back,’ I said. ‘You stay here, wait for his partner to return.’

       ‘Where’ll you be?’

       ‘I’m going to Clement. Our man will get word that his partner has found the tokens and wants to make a trade: our man’s weapon and tokens for a truce,’ Abbey said.

       ‘And if our man’s already been caught by his partner?’

       ‘The rumour will bring our man. If the weapon’s as unique as you say, he’ll come eventually.’

 

Clement was not pleased to see me. Least of all pleased to see the very weapon that had been used to take his husband’s life. Once I talked him down from running, I explained all he had to do was leave the shop open for the evening. I’d protect him. He was hesitant at first, but as I settled to clean my sword and pistols, he relaxed.

       ‘You’re well-armed,’ he said.

       ‘I’m dangerous enough without them,’ I said.

       ‘Didn’t mean nothing by it!’

       ‘Clement. Take a breath. I’m here to protect you if these spooks come back. That’s what the Retrievers do.’

       ‘Protect people?’

       I agreed. It wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t the whole truth. Normally we protected people for an ongoing fee, and if that fee did not eventuate, something bad might happen to one’s shop. Not the most honourable line of work, but I’d done genuine good on more than a few occasions, saving regular folk from bandits, unlawful searches and the like.

       I did the business of breaking my pistols down, cleaning and oiling them, and rebuilding them. Clement watched with morbid fascination. I loaded the guns with the largest shells I had and rested my sabre across my lap.

       The door to the shop was closed but unlocked.

       Clement dimmed the lamps and curled up in a blanket on the cot behind the counter. He took up a bone-needle and thread, and as he joined two sections of cloth, his fingers steadied: the tremble fell away, replaced by deft, deliberate strokes. Click-clack. Click-clack, as he sewed.

       I closed my eyes and waited.

 

The Cook arrived sometime in the small hours of the morning. The moon was high but falling, and the air had taken to chill. Our lamps were out. Clement snored.

       The front door creaked. I didn’t move.

       The Cook crept in. His yellow cloak hung in threads, trail-worn, his apron smeared in dark brown and crimson stains—I hoped it was not Edwin’s blood. Dark circles under his eyes, a scratchy, unshaved beard, dirt under his nails so black it was opaque, and flaked skin made him more creature than man.

       ‘Who are you?’ I said at last.

       The Cook reeled and stuck out his pistol as if to push away an intruder.

       ‘Veil’s sake!’ he cried. ‘Raise em!’

       I did not move.

       ‘I said raise em, lady.’

       I stayed where I was, the weight of my sabre on each knee more comfort than a gun in my hand.

       ‘Who are you?’ I said again.

       He sneered.

       ‘Almira The Kettle, dread pirate, famous fight’a, lover of great folk, terror to the law. You may have heard of me.’

       I had, in fact, heard of Almira The Kettle. A small-time crook who fashioned himself a pirate, he’d been thrown out of more pirate crews than most aeronauts apply for. I realised then we should have recognised his weapon earlier: the ladle was his trademark, his way of differentiating his services.

       ‘In the stories you carry a ladle larger than a man,’ I said. ‘It’s smaller than I imagined.’

       ‘You’ve got my Hammer!’ he said. He cocked the pistola.

       ‘I wouldn’t do that.’

       His lips pulled back to reveal an accident of yellow teeth.

       ‘You’ve got what, four rounds, one in the chamber? How quickly can you pull the trigger, I wonder? Slowly, I’d wager. You’re doing your best but you can’t stop the shake in your arm, your eyes are yellowed, more than they should be for your age—more nights on the ale than off. You’re feeling sluggish, even right now. Tired, and not drunk, but on the way there. So you could pull the trigger before I get to you, but you may miss.’

       I looked at my sabre meaningfully.

       ‘I won’t miss.’

       He howled and pulled the trigger. The pistol boomed in the small shop. The slug caught me in the thigh as I came at him.

       My blade leapt at his gun-arm, but he fell away.

       He fired again. This time he missed completely.

       I descended, and my sabre caught him in the side. I rested the tip on his throat.

       He clutched his pistol, still pointed at my chest.

       ‘You’re done,’ I said.

       ‘Nah, I don’t die,’ he said. ‘I don’t die. I stew em, that’s what I do.’

       He spat at me. His arm tensed.

       I removed his hand before the signal could reach his finger to pull the trigger.

       Clement howled, and shoved me out of the way. He swung the ladle into Almira’s temple. And again. And again.

       Clement beat Almira over and over, his rage dissolving into hysteria.

       I disarmed him, and he collapsed into a ball of tears and blood and anger.

 

Brooks returned the next morning with Almira’s partner in chains. I hadn’t slept and had spent the rest of the dark hours cleaning Almira from the floorboards. Almira’s partner—a petty thief called Badger—told us everything. The tokens were being smuggled into the council chambers to provide a council member who was on the Pirate King’s payroll passage to the next meeting of the pirate fleet. Badger called it a Roping: a great celebration where dozens of sky galleons would lash themselves together to form one, huge refuge for revelry, dancing and cheer. They would do this for a week, and on the seventh night, the Pirate King, Dale O’Dimm, would summon the Captains of the free pirate fleet to discuss plans and schemes and treachery.

       Almira had hatched a scheme to steal tokens needed for passage to the Roping. He’d intended to sell them to the highest bidders—perhaps regular citizens looking for a thrill, or aeronauts hoping to get in the good graces of their desired Captains. Whatever the plan, Badger had only been an accessory.

       I asked why they’d impersonated the Retrievers, and Badger confessed it was his idea. A way to shift the blame if they were caught by the white law or pirates alike. We took Badger to Windsor. I never saw Badger once he passed from Windsor’s office, led by Brooks, into a chamber that lead to Windsor’s private galleon landing.

       ‘What’ll you do to him?’ I asked Windsor.

       ‘The punishment for crossing the Retrievers is tipping. But I think Badger might be more useful to us alive, we’ll see.’ He wore his customary high-collared yellow cloak, emblazoned with a W on the chest. He steepled his hands. It made his many rings clack together. ‘You don’t seem pleased.’

       ‘Edwin didn’t deserve to die like that.’

       ‘And yet you put Clement’s life in danger to catch your man.’

       ‘I did what I had to.’   

       Windsor shrugged. ‘It rains somewhere in opensky. You’re becoming a fine asset, Abbey.’

       He handed me a small wooden box, a thank you for my service.

       And that’s that.

           

***

 

Abbey drew a lacquered pipe from her cloak and began to stuff it with leaves. She used a flick-knife to break apart the tobacco. She took her time, and lit the pipe with a match.

       ‘What was the gift?’ Maynard said.

       Abbey gestured to the pipe.

       ‘Oh.’ He said. ‘You still have it.’

       ‘I do.’

       ‘You seem ashamed of how it ended with Almira, so why keep it.’

       ‘The past is important, mudfoot. It reminds me that I don’t want to be that person anymore.’

       They sat in silence while Abbey smoked. When the roar of Dust died to a trickle, they pulled the shield down and left the engine chamber. Maynard climbed back to the Toore, and Abbey took her bag of weapons and tools and disappeared without a word.



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